Climate-resilient crops strengthen future food
Improved climate-resilient crops are key to the future food and nutritional security of the dry areas. They help farmers maintain productivity against a backdrop of rising temperatures and increasing water scarcity; strengthen defences against the emergence of new pests and disease; and provide a practical and sustainable way of adapting to climate change.
ICARDA plays a critical role in the development, improvement and dissemination of improved climate-resilient crops. The Center has a global mandate for the improvement of barley, lentil, faba bean, and grasspea, and shares mandates for wheat and chickpea with CGIAR partners CIMMYT and ICRISAT, respectively.
Since its inception in 1975 ICARDA has supplied germplasm to national crop improvement programs all over the world, contributing to the release of more than 1050 improved cereal and legume varieties. In 2017 alone it distributed 1490 sets of international nurseries containing elite germplasm to partners in 51 countries, and some 37 new varieties developed from ICARDA genetic materials were released by national partners.
In 2012 the Center also developed the Focused Identification of Germplasm Strategy, a powerful tool that allows gene bank managers and agricultural researchers worldwide to screen large plant genetic resource collections more accurately and rapidly.
Adapting to harsh conditions
The improved varieties offer a robust defence against the harsh conditions that often prevail in partner countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, ICARDA and its national partners have developed and released high-yielding and heat-tolerant wheat varieties in response to the region’s growing dependence on costly food imports and the need to protect ordinary Africans from the vagaries of global commodity markets.
When a devastating outbreak of stripe rust occurred in Ethiopia in 2010, causing significant losses and economic hardship for the country’s wheat farmers, a USAID-funded initiative managed by ICARDA supported the rapid development and distribution of higher-yielding and rust-resistant wheat varieties which are now generating higher yields and incomes for farmers, and strengthening the food security of rural communities.
In South Asia, ICARDA has worked with national partners to enhance the production of pulses, a major contributor to regional diets. Encouraging small farmers to grow lentils in fields left fallow after rice harvests has improved their livelihoods and nutrition, and demonstrated to national governments a path towards self-sufficiency and reduced dependence on foreign imports. The Center has also developed, tested, and disseminated micronutrient-rich lentil varieties to combat malnutrition, as well as high-yielding, low-neurotoxin grass pea varieties.
ICARDA’s partnership with CIMMYT has also strengthened global wheat production. A recent analysis of this partnership, covering the period 1994-2014, suggested that improved wheat varieties using CGIAR breeding lines now cover more than 100 million hectares (ha) – nearly two-thirds of the area sown to improved varieties worldwide. The study estimated that economic benefits generated by the additional grain range from $2.8 billion to $3.8 Billion every year.
Conserving fragile biodiversity
The genetic material that provides the building blocks of these resilient crops is stored in ICARDA gene banks in Lebanon and Morocco – part of a highly efficient global conservation system that is critical to the food security of a rapidly growing global population. The gene banks host one of the world’s largest and most unique collections of barley, faba bean, grass pea and lentil crops, along with ancient varieties of durum and bread wheat. Of the 157,000 accessions stored in the gene banks, more than 65 per cent are unique landraces and wild relatives, many now under threat in their natural habitats.
The gene banks are also recognized internationally. According to GENESYS, a global portal containing extensive information on plant genetic resources, of the 2.5 million samples held in 447 of the world’s major crop gene banks, ICARDA ranks first or second in the number of genetic resources it holds in-trust for barley, chickpea, faba bean, Medicago, Lathyrus, lentil, Pisum, Trifolium, and Vicia. It also ranks third for wheat resources. Furthermore, some 48 per cent of faba bean accessions and 51 per cent of all lentil resources stored in gene banks worldwide are conserved by ICARDA.
Conserving for long-term posterity
This unique genetic material is safely duplicated in 11 reliable partner gene banks, including national gene banks in Switzerland and India, and the gene banks of CGIAR partners CIMMYT and ICRISAT. Material is also preserved in the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway – a large and secure storage facility buried deep inside thick permafrost and rock on the Arctic island of Svalbard, which holds backups from the world’s most important gene bank collections.
This additional security ensures that ICARDA’s genetic materials will continue to play a critical role in the development of climate-resilient crops. It also ensures that the Center’s unique collection of genetic resources - gathered from dryland environments and containing adaptive traits that can help countries and agricultural systems adjust to climate change – is available for generations to come.